Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Surgery, the oldest form of cancer treatment, is used in several ways to help cancer patients. It provides the best chance to stop many types of cancer and also plays a part in diagnosing, staging and supporting cancer treatment.

Having surgery is different for every patient — depending on the type of surgery, the type of cancer and the patient’s health. For some people, surgery is a major medical procedure with life-changing side effects. For others, surgery is quick and has few side effects.

Several types of surgery are helpful to people with cancer. Some surgeries are used in combination with other types of treatment. The following is a list of surgeries with a brief explanation of their goals:

  • Curative surgery – removes the cancerous tumor or growth from the body. Surgeons use curative surgery when the cancerous tumor is localized to a specific area of the body. This type of treatment is often considered the primary treatment; however, other types of cancer treatments, such as radiation, may be used before or after the surgery.  
  • Preventive surgery – is used to remove tissue that does not contain cancerous cells, but may develop into a malignant tumor. For example, polyps in the colon may be considered precancerous tissue and preventative surgery may be performed to remove them. 
  • Diagnostic surgery – helps to determine whether cells are cancerous. Diagnostic surgery is used to remove a tissue sample for testing and evaluation (in a laboratory by a pathologist). The tissue samples help to confirm a diagnosis, identify the type of cancer or determine the stage of the cancer.  
  • Staging surgery – works to uncover the extent of cancer or the extent of the disease in the body. Laparoscopy (a viewing tube with a lens or camera is inserted through a small incision to examine the inside of the body and to remove tissue samples) is an example of a surgical staging procedure. 
  • Debulking surgery – removes a portion, though not all, of a cancerous tumor. It is used in certain situations when removing an entire tumor may cause damage to an organ or the body. Other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, may be used after debulking surgery is performed. 
  • Palliative surgery – is used to treat cancer at advanced stages. It does not work to cure cancer, but to relieve discomfort or to correct other problems cancer or cancer treatment may have created.  
  • Supportive surgery – is similar to palliative surgery because it does not work to cure cancer. Instead, it helps other cancer treatments work effectively. An example of supportive surgery is the insertion of a catheter to help with chemotherapy.  
  • Restorative surgery – is sometimes used as a follow-up to curative or other surgeries to change or restore a person’s appearance or the function of a body part. For example, women with breast cancer sometimes need breast reconstruction surgery to restore the physical shape of the affected breast(s). Curative surgery for oral cancer can cause a change in the shape and appearance of a person’s mouth. Restorative surgery may be performed to address these effects.